01 PaladinPaladin
Alex McCartney
Veterum Musica Vm022 (alexmccartney.co.uk)

This serene disc is an exploration of the under-represented lute composer Jean Paul Paladin (c1500-1565), who was known as Giovanni Paulo Paladino before his move to France around 1516. Among the monarchs he entertained was Mary Queen of Scots, of interest to the performer Alex McCartney who lives in Scotland.

The disc comes with a single fold insert that gives McCartney space to give us detail about the composer’s life and style. His notes finish with a philosophical discussion about his choice of cover art, a gorgeous French-Gothic illumination from a late-medieval book of hours: Paladin’s fantasies for him contain a sense of the “multi-layered ritual and meditation” that the book of hours would have also provided.

Indeed, the disc comes across as very contemplative. The playing is smooth, poised, and well balanced, if a little static at times. McCartney explains that Paladin’s ten fantasias in particular attracted him to the composer, and he includes nine of the ten here. The other tracks offer two madrigal intabulations and four anonymous preludes, all of which are polyphonic in nature. This means that the whole disc is restricted to contrapuntal genres in slow duple meter – so if you’re hoping for something you can tap your foot to, you’ll have to look elsewhere. Paladin did publish a bit of dance music, but McCartney is not trying to give us a complete picture of the composer’s output. His disc offers instead a meditative escape using Paladin’s soothing and exquisite counterpoint.

02 Fantasia BellissimaFantasia Bellissima
Bernhard Hofstotter
TYXart TXA 18115 (tyxart.de; bernhardhofstotter.org)

As if you hadn’t heard enough about Ukraine in the news lately, this superb disc features premiere recordings from the so-called Lviv Lute Tablature, named for its current location. The booklet includes excellent notes on this interesting source by Dr. Kateryna Schöning -- though I believe she may be mistaken when she states that “besides two lost sources… the manuscript is the only lute tablature from the Polish-Lithuanian region.” Canada’s own Magdalena Tomsinska of Waterloo edited the Gdansk Lute Tablature MS 4022 and recorded selections in 2014.

Beyond just music, the source’s 124 folios also contain Latin aphorisms, graphic patterns and other visual ornaments, as well as some Polish poetry. The manuscript’s music comes from a variety of different nations, composers, and time periods. On the disc you’ll find pieces from the early 16th century, such as Joan Ambrosio Dalza’s Pavana alla Ferrarese, yet also two fantasias by John Dowland which were composed towards the end of the century. This makes for a nice variety.

Bernhard Hofstötter’s lute playing is superb, as is the sound of his Renatus Lechner seven-course lute in the acoustic of the Landesmusikakademie Sachsen in Colditz Castle. The dance rhythms have articulation and buoyancy, the counterpoint clarity and grace. Chanson intabulations by Sermisy, Sandrin, and Jannequin are high points. However, purists should be prepared for what I assume is an off-book strum-fest in the anonymous Tarzeto which opens and closes the disc.

03 Morel violleMorel – Premier Livre de Pièces de Violle
Alejandro Marias; La Spagna
Brilliant Classics 95962 (naxosdirect.com)

French composer and viola da gamba player Jacques Morel (c.1690 - c.1740)’s biography is so obscure that even the dates and places of his birth and death are unknown. Sadly, he doesn’t even have a wiki page. We do know he was a pupil of Marin Marais, the composer and foremost viola da gambist of his day, to whom Morel dedicated this Premier Livre de Pièces de Violle (c.1709), his major legacy and the subject of this CD.

There hasn’t been a complete recording of these suites, prompting virtuoso gambist Alejandro Marias to spearhead this project to record several of them for the first time. At the core of the album are Marias’ stylish and musically secure performances of four suites from the Premier Livre for the seven-string bass viola da gamba in differing keys. The continuo parts are provided by members of the award-winning Spanish period music group La Spagna.

Morel’s music is attractively varied in the best high-French Baroque tradition. Seven or eight characteristic period dance movements typically follow the emotive rubato opening prelude in each suite. Judging from this album, Morel’s attractive oeuvre is imbued with his idiosyncratic voice, even though the influence of his teacher Marais’ style is also present. My album picks: Suite in A minor’s Sarabande l’Agréable, the Gigue à l’anglaise and the Échos de Fontainebleau in the Suite in D.

Even though long neglected, this music is full of delightful discoveries and should be better known.

04 Bach OuverturesJohann Sebastian Bernard Ludwig Bach – Ouvertures for Orchestra
Concerto Italiano; Rinaldo Alessandrini
Naïve OP 30578 (naxosdirect.com)

How pleasant to explore music by relatives of Johann Sebastian Bach other than his sons. Johann Ludwig was a third cousin of Bach, Johann Bernhard a second cousin. On this CD, they each contribute an Ouverture to accompany the four by the Bach.

So is Concerto Italiano’s choice justified? The works by the two cousins are substantially shorter than the great man’s. Yet listening to them shows how highly enjoyable they are: listen to the Rigaudons and Gavotte en Rondeaux in Johann Bernhard’s Ouverture-Suite in E Minor.

Then there is Johann Ludwig’s contribution to the CD, namely, his Ouverture in G Major. This is even shorter than Johann Bernhard’s work but much more spritely. The movements all ask to be danced to, whether or not they actually were at the time. Indeed the Ouverture by Johann Ludwig could even be played as background music at any event, no matter how formal.

And so to the four Orchestral Suites by Johann Sebastian. From the movement which opens the CDs (the Ouverture to the Orchestral Suite No.3) there is a complexity to Bach’s composition which marks him out for the composer he was. Real demands are made on the string-players, an aspect repeated throughout the four Suites. It is quite clear that by Bach’s time the movements named after French country dances were well advanced from their original rural simplicity.

Although his own writing shines through on these CDs, the sleeve-notes state how much Johann Sebastian respected his two cousins. The beautiful pieces selected by Concerto Italiano and their sheer vivaciousness demonstrate why.

05 GiordaniTommaso Giordani – Sonatas Op.30; Antonin Kammell – Sonata in D Major
Luchkow-Stadlen-Jarvis Trio
Marquis Classics MAR 81495 (marquisclassics.com)

The viola da gamba’s persistence in late-18th-century England owed something to the aristocracy. It appears that Lady Lavinia Spencer (1762-1831) was the gamba-playing dedicatee of this CD’s Giordani sonatas, and yes, she is a direct ancestor of the late Princess Diana Spencer and sons William and Harry! From a musical standpoint gamba players could by then hold an equal role in sonatas for violin, viola da gamba and fortepiano, such as the Three Sonatas, Op. 30 (published c.1782) by Naples-born, later Ireland-based, Tommasso Giordani (c.1738-1806). The textures Giordani achieves through familiarity with the gamba’s high register liberated the instrument from bass-playing, allowing imitation and echoing between instruments and octave doubling of melody in the violin and gamba, for example in the opening movement of Sonata No.2 in D Major. I find this to be the best of the sonatas, with a particularly fine slow movement; Giordani was a natural melodist whose use of contrasting minor keys and quiet fortepiano solos is notable. His active gamba part in the finale illustrates the instrument’s development towards virtuosity.

The Canadian Luchkow-Stadlen-Jarvis Trio is convincing, with clean solo and ensemble playing free of affectation, with attractive tone and balance, and expressive inflections in the slow movements. And although the Sonata in C Major, Op.1, No.1 by Czech composer Antonin Kammell (1730-1785) that ends this disc has other requirements – ornamentation, accentuation and hairpin crescendos – they meet those demands equally well.

07 Paul MerkeloThe Enlightened Trumpet
Paul Merkelo (principal trumpet OSM); Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra; Marios Papadopoulos
Sony Classical S80463C (paulmerkelotrumpet.com)

With repertoire spanning the Baroque through the classical eras; Telemann through Haydn, Leopold Mozart and Hummel, The Enlightened Trumpet showcases the bona fide genius of Paul Merkelo, principal trumpet of the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal. After his epic confrontations with Baroque Transcriptions and French Trumpet Concertos, Merkelo deftly combines trumpet and strings in the incisiveness of Haydn’s Concerto in E-flat Major (Hob.Vlle.1) with its famously breathtaking Allegro finale, the not inconsiderable demands of which he takes in his stride.

Merkelo then nimbly navigates his way between the rhetoric and energy of Telemann’s Concerto in D Major (TWV 51:D7) and Leopold Mozart’s Concerto in D Major for trumpet, two horns and strings with appealing melodiousness and – in the second instance – robust interplay with the other horns. The performance of the Hummel Concerto in E Major (S.49) sees its melodic ingenuity projected with due vitality, as well as a stunning degree of spontaneity and expressive poise redolent of Maurice André, Merkelo’s legendary predecessor to whom he has been likened. Not without good reason, as this disc attests.

The crowning moments come during the Rondo finale of the Hummel, the cadenza of which has been credited to Timofei Dokshizer. By then, of course, Merkelo has already made his mark, through a bracing workout across three other famous trumpet concertos, with heartfelt eloquence worthy of the reputation he has gained among his trumpet-playing orchestral peers across the globe.

08 Old SoulsOld Souls
Gili Schwarzman; Guy Braunstein; Susanna Yoko Henkel; Amihai Grosz; Alisa Weilerstein
Pentatone PTC 5186 815 (naxosdirect.com)

This recording of four works, transcriptions of two solo violin pieces and of two string quartets, in which flutist Gili Schwarzman plays the solo part in the solo pieces and the first violin part in the quartets, presents the reviewer with the double challenge of considering both the arrangements and the performances.

The arranger is Guy Braunstein, a former concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and now a soloist, conductor and arranger. He is also Schwarzman’s husband. His skill as an arranger, deeply informed by his knowledge of the violin, is formidable. The first composition on the disc, Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No.4, is a masterful orchestration for flute and string quartet. Braunstein did not merely assign the notes of the piano part, according to their pitch, to the corresponding instruments, but rewrote it for string quartet. One could be forgiven for assuming that it was an original composition by Beethoven himself.

The performances are energetic and nuanced, models of musical artistry. My favourite moment in the entire CD is the second movement of Dvořák’s String Quartet Op.96, which sounds absolutely natural played on the flute. The long, languorous melodic line, as played by Schwarzman, is never rushed and at the same time, never loses energy.

So it is great having this recorded new take on some well-known chamber music. Now let us hope that Braunstein’s arrangements will be published.

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